What is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs?

August 21, 2023   •  Posted in: 

Have you had this experience? You’re trying to focus on the task at hand – perhaps it’s studying for an important exam, or finishing work for an upcoming deadline. You know that finishing this task will bring you a lot of recognition, which is important to you. You will feel proud of yourself, and this is something you really want to accomplish.

However, your stomach is rumbling. You haven’t had time to eat all afternoon. In fact, you’ve been sitting at your desk working since last night, and you’re exhausted.

Most people in this scenario wouldn’t be able to focus on the task they need to accomplish, no matter how important it is. You might be lacking in motivation.

This is a very simplistic demonstration of Abraham Maslow’s theory of human motivation, also called Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. This theory states that all humans are driven toward self-actualization – but that we need to fulfill our more basic and instinctual needs (like food and rest) first.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has received some criticism, but overall is one of the most influential theories of human behavior around today. Here’s an easy-to-understand guide to Maslow’s theory.


Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, explained

Abraham Maslow (1908 – 1970) was an American psychologist who was deeply influential in the humanistic psychology movement. Rather than focusing on human defects (as psychoanalysts like Freud did), he focused on the potential and self-actualization of each person. In other words, what motivates us to achieve our highest potential? This was one of the important questions that Maslow sought to answer.

Maslow first introduced his hierarchy of needs in a 1943 paper titled “A Theory of Human Motivation.”[1] In this paper, he suggested that every human being has two types of needs: deficiency needs and growth needs. Furthermore, he separated these needs into 5 categories, explaining that lower-level needs needed to be fulfilled before higher-level needs could be met – thus creating a hierarchy.

Deficiency needs vs. growth needs

Maslow believed that deficiency needs were lower-level needs concerned with basic survival, physiological needs, and safety. Some examples of these deficiency needs include:

  • Food
  • Shelter
  • Breathing/air
  • Water
  • Sleep
  • Clothing
  • Employment
  • Health
  • Protection from harm

Deficiency needs motivate behavior when they’re unmet. For example, if you’re cold, you feel motivated to find shelter. If you’re hungry, you feel motivated to find food.

Growth needs are more psychological in Maslow’s theory. These needs have to do with every human’s drive to meet their full potential. Some examples of growth needs include:

  • Self-actualization
  • Reaching potential
  • Learning
  • Beauty
  • Self-improvement
  • Love
  • Understanding of the world

Unlike deficiency needs, growth needs motivate behavior simply for the inherent human desire to move forward, grow, and reach potential.

On top of splitting needs into deficiency and growth needs, Maslow also created a pyramid of needs, with the most basic needs falling at the bottom and the highest-level needs (self-actualization) at the top.

The 5 categories of needs, from lowest to highest, are:

  1. Physiological needs (food, water, air, shelter)
  2. Safety needs (employment, protection from crime, health)
  3. Love and belonging (friendship, family, community)
  4. Self-esteem (achievement, confidence, uniqueness)
  5. Self-actualization (purpose, potential, meaning)

Physiological needs

These are needs that have to do with your body’s survival. On top of needs like food, water, and oxygen, Maslow also included sex in this category.

Safety needs

These are needs that keep us feeling safe and secure in our lives. In today’s world, safety needs might be secure employment, health insurance, and living in communities free from violence.

Social needs

This is where Maslow’s needs change from deficiency to growth-motivated. We all need a sense of belonging in order to live happy and fulfilled lives. Research shows that social connection is one of the most important aspects of overall health and well-being. Social needs describe this need – the need to belong to a community of people and to feel loved.

Esteem needs

According to Maslow, we also have a need to be respected and appreciated by others. Esteem needs include achieving accomplishments and gaining recognition from others around us. This helps us to gain a sense of confidence and achievement, and can help build self-esteem.

Self-actualization needs

In Maslow’s model, “self-actualization” is the highest and ultimate human need[2]. The need for self-actualization means the need to meet your full potential. To self-actualize, we must develop ourselves, be motivated simply to grow, and find our deeper purpose. Self-actualization goes beyond esteem – it’s not about achieving things for external recognition, but simply for the simple purpose of growing.

We all have different ideas about what “self-actualization” might look like. According to Maslow, self-actualized people[3]:

  • Embrace the unknown, are spontaneous, and are capable of tolerating ambiguity
  • Accept themselves and others as they are
  • Frequently feel a sense of awe, wonder, ecstasy, and joy (what Maslow called “peak experiences”)
  • Are realistic, value authenticity, and judge situations honestly
  • Form their own opinions without depending on societal views
  • Are problem-centered, which means they overcome (and help others overcome) problems
  • Are autonomous and resourceful, and makes their own choices
  • Have a non-hostile and philosophical sense of humor (are able to laugh at themselves, but never laugh at the expense of others)
  • Continually practice gratitude for simple things
  • Have strong interpersonal connections with just a few people and enjoy solitude –
  • But, at the same time, feel a sense of love and affection toward the entire human race
  • Show respect for every human being regardless of race, religion, gender, and so on
  • Have a deep sense of purpose

These characteristics are, at least according to Maslow’s theory, what we all hope to achieve someday.

In his paper, Maslow wrote this pyramid was like a hierarchy – each lower need must be satisfied before higher needs can arise.

For example, someone who is hungry will need to fulfill their need for food before their need for connection and community arises. Someone who feels unsafe in their environment will need to protect themselves before they have a need to find meaning in life.

What Defines a Healthy Person

Many of us share the common goal of attaining both physical and mental well-being. But what exactly constitutes a “healthy” person? Dr. Jantz explores this ambiguous term and provides insights into the key markers of health. He not only outlines the attributes that make up a healthy individual but also offers a holistic approach to achieving and sustaining this state, known as the Whole Person Approach.

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How can the hierarchy of needs be used to motivate?

Maslow created his hierarchy of needs primarily as a theory of human motivation. In other words, what motivates human behavior? Why do people feel motivated to do certain things and not others? When you think about it in this way, you can start to see how you can use Maslow’s hierarchy to motivate people – both others and yourself.

For example, if you’re a workplace leader, then you can think about how well each employee’s job is fulfilling their needs according to Maslow’s hierarchy. As a manager, of course you want your employees to be intrinsically motivated to do their best work. But intrinsic motivation for growth – or a growth need – can only arise when deficiency needs are fulfilled.

In other words, if your employees aren’t making a high enough salary to afford housing in a safe neighborhood, or if they don’t have access to health insurance, or if their work hours don’t leave them enough time for restful sleep – then their deficiency needs (physiological needs and safety needs) haven’t been met.

Following the hierarchy model, if someone doesn’t have their deficiency needs met, then their growth needs (like those of self-actualization and growth) will not arise. That means your employees won’t be intrinsically motivated to grow and learn until they feel safe and all of their more basic needs are met. The best way to motivate them may be to find ways to fulfill their deficiency needs.

Once employees’ deficiency needs, like food, adequate shelter, rest, safety, and more are met, they may become more likely to be intrinsically motivated to achieve their full potential.

The same goes for yourself. You may be having a difficult time reaching deeper goals such as finding meaning and becoming the best version of yourself. If you’re feeling unmotivated, look at which of your needs are unmet. Are you feeling tired? Sick? Maybe there’s something going on in your life that’s making you feel unsafe? Or perhaps you feel lonely, and long for companionship?

By using Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you can gain a better understanding of what’s motivating your behavior now, and what you need to do to be able to be driven by higher-level growth needs.


What are the advantages and disadvantages of Maslow’s theory?

Like we’ve already discussed, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs has many advantages when applied. This theory can help increase motivation and understanding of both yourself and others.

On top of that, Maslow’s original paper also offered a unique and innovative approach to what motivates human behavior. Rather than focusing on humans’ deficits, Maslow and his humanistic peers believed that all humans are driven toward ultimately reaching self-actualization. This understanding of human behavior has shaped the world of psychology in positive and optimistic ways.

However, criticism of Maslow’s theory includes the idea that human needs don’t necessarily come on a hierarchy. The idea that deficiency needs must be fulfilled before growth needs robs all disadvantaged people – the unhoused, the hungry, the chronically ill, and so on – of the opportunity of self-actualization.

For example, one 2015 paper studying homeless people with severe mental illness found that the relationship between basic “lower-level” needs and higher, growth-based needs was complex and non-linear. People living in poverty also have needs for love, belonging, self-esteem, recognition, and so on.

However, in his later years, Maslow did acknowledge that each need doesn’t need to be 100% met before moving on to higher needs.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is a powerful way to understand your needs and behaviors. If you’re interested in deepening your self-awareness further, then holistic mental health treatment at The Center • A Place of HOPE can help. We use a Whole Person Care approach that takes into account every aspect of your well-being.

Please call during opening hours, Mon-Fri 9am-5pm PT, Verify Insurance or complete the form below.

[1] https://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2Fh0054346
[2] https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/ED501708.pdf
[3] https://www.oleanschools.org/cms/lib/NY19000263/Centricity/Domain/166/wellness_worksheet_020.pdf

Dr. Gregory Jantz

Pioneering Whole Person Care over thirty years ago, Dr. Gregory Jantz is an innovator in the treatment of mental health. He is a best-selling author of over 45 books, and a go-to media authority on behavioral health afflictions, appearing on CBS, ABC, NBC, Fox, and CNN. Dr. Jantz leads a team of world-class, licensed, and...

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